That night, he dreamt that he was drowning.
Joaquin Carolus couldn’t swim up or down, left or right. He sank and he sank further down, like an anchor severed from a vessel still afloat. Or was he falling? It’s only a dream, he assured himself, so Carolus tried to rouse himself awake. He squirmed and struggled. That was when he realized that he had neither arms nor legs with which to pinch or kick or punch himself back to life. He was but a lonely spark of light, floating aimlessly amidst a vast ocean of nothingness.
This boundless void, which Carolus had awoken to, was a dreary place. It was hard to get used to. There was nothing for him to do but think and brood and remember. What benevolent god, he wondered, would condemn him to a place like this. Socrates, wise as he was, had been mistaken. If this truly is eternal oblivion, then it was not the end of existence, nor was it the dreamless sleep as so many had hoped it would be. It was hell, but not the way the Jews, the Christians, or the Muslims had envisioned it. There was no fire, no brimstone; only a pervading sense of loneliness and regret.
Whether time was passing, or if it simply did not exist in this desolate reality, Carolus could not tell for certain. There was no clock audible or visible to him, nor was there a sun to rise at dawn and set in the evenfall. What now? Carolus asked himself. He began to count the seconds that passed in his mind. He stopped at twenty. It was futile.
Wistfulness settled as the hours went by in his mind. Carolus saw a mournful face flash before him like a hologram. Her face was remarkably fair for a Filipina and she had almond-shaped brown eyes that in his life had bound Carolus to her every will. He loved her dearly, that strong-willed and compassionate Ariana Hernandez. But nothing was meant to last. His thoughts began to race again, this time faster than a galloping stallion. The face of his former lover soon faded and morphed into that of a middle-aged woman. It was his mother, Liza Ortega-Carolus. She was plump, and had sun-scorched skin that Carolus had not inherited. Is she weeping for me? Carolus wondered as he floated about. Is anyone weeping for me at all?
The darkness of the void had a way of coquetting with the human mind, or at least what is left of it after death. Now and then a faint light would flash, resembling fire, a star, a galaxy, a street lamp, and in the rarest of moments, the northern lights. Carolus had only fleeting glimpses. Darkness swallowed them as quickly as they were kindled.
I must be dreaming, I must be dreaming, thought Carolus. If this is death, then why am I alone? Where are the souls of those who have perished before me? Are they too condemneed to an eternity of solitude and in utter darkness? Where are the gods who have promised salvation? I ought to be in heaven, Valhalla, the Elysian fields, or wherever else. Carolus felt adrenaline rushing through his phantom limbs and his phantom arms. No, he thought. I shall find the way out.
Light flashed, wrestling against the darkness into submission, into defeat. The light claimed a vast but barren landmass that Carolus had never before seen, and the darkness retreated to the heavens above. Carolus felt himself returning to life—bone by bone, limb by limb, finger by finger, and toe by toe. Am I dead? he asked himself. Am I dreaming? He buried his face in his palms and wept though not a single tear fell from his eyes. Whether it was for sorrow or for relief he could not tell.
There was now soil underfoot, and then grass. Pines, oaks, and birches all began sprouting like weeds throughout deep vales of nothing but ash and snow. Rain fell lightly, then came the mist that shrouded the lowlands like the breath of a sleeping behemoth.
Carolus felt his stomach groan, followed by a sting of utter bliss. He sauntered towards one of the newly grown trees, delighted at the sight of a dozen apples, all ripe for consumption. As he ate, Carolus couldn’t help but gaze up at the darkness. When once it held him prisoner, now he reveled in its defeat. The clouds parted, unveiling a pair of lachrymose eyes staring back at him. They were almond-shaped and brown, with a semblance of wistful longing in them. I know those eyes, thought Carolus.
The rain ceased and the mists retreated. One by one, the trees and the grass and the butterflies turned to ash. Carolus trembled as the ground, now barren, cracked and shattered beneath him. He knelt down, clasping his hands together. “In the name of the father,” he began.
And then there was silence.